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Unleashing Hidden Talent: The Goal of “Leader-Leader” Management

Us Navy

Last week, I shared that our entire senior leadership team at Level 2 Legal has been reading the compelling true story of empowering leadership in Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by retired U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet. Over the next weeks, I’ll be sharing some key insights.

Captain Marquet’s book is divided into four parts. In Part I, he describes his coming to terms with the fundamental flaws and limitations in the traditional “Leader-Follower” approach to management. And then in Parts II through IV, he describes the mechanisms he and his team developed while serving on board the USS Santa Fe to implement the more sustainable “Leader-Leader” approach.

Those mechanisms are organized into three groups: Control, Competence, and Clarity (with the mechanisms in the Competence and Clarity groups existing as twin pillars to support the primary goal of Control). Moving control “from the top” and pushing it down the organizational chart – and thereby unleashing the passions and talents throughout an organization – is the fundamental goal of the Leader-Leader approach. As Captain Marquet puts it, the objective is to “deconstruct decision authority and push it down to where the information live[s].” He and his team called this “[d]on’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.”

What are the mechanisms an organization can use to move greater Control to where information lives? Captain Marquet identifies eight such mechanisms – we’ll cover the first four in this post.

  • “Find the genetic code for control and rewrite it.” With fewer than six months before the USS Santa Fe would get underway for its latest deployment, Captain Marquet needed “quick wins” to kick-start the Leader-Leader approach. He accomplished one quick win through a one-word change in the ship’s regulations. Instead of having senior officers approve all leave for the enlisted crew, the ship’s Chief of the Boat (or “COB” – the most senior enlisted person on the craft) was empowered to approve all leave, based on recommendations from the department chiefs below him. An easy change that meaningfully put the chiefs and the COB on a path to truly “running” the ship.
  • “Act your way to new thinking.” When Captain Marquet assumed command of the Santa Fe, morale on board was low. With insufficient time to “change thinking and let that percolate and ultimately change people’s actions,” Captain Marquet instead changed behavior – and allowed that to ultimately change both thinking and morale. One example – the mandatory “three-name rule” for use when greeting any visitor. It goes like this: “Good morning, Commodore Kenny, my name is Petty Officer Jones, welcome aboard Santa Fe.” Such a simple act of ownership and pride drove greater control and morale down the org chart.
  • “Short, early conversations make efficient work.” When attempting to generate operational excellence – as opposed to simply avoiding errors – frequent but short conversations that help everyone focus on the goal at hand can be a powerful tool. Importantly, the goal of such short and early check-ins is not to re-vest control “up the chain,” but rather for those nearest the information to retain control while making sure they are tackling the right problems. Captain Marquet’s example – the non-trivial matter of navigating Santa Fe to a specific location in the Pacific Ocean for a pre-deployment drill. The navigational plans presented to him by his quartermasters were technically perfect and devoid of errors, but they did not accomplish the goal of the drill. Empowering those down the chain to check-in with short, early conversations not only reinforces local control, but can also save tremendous time, effort, and resources.
  • “Use ‘I intend to . . .’ to turn passive followers into active leaders.” One of the most powerful mechanisms for shifting control came from an error made by Captain Marquet himself. During a drill in which the Santa Fe’s nuclear reactor was intentionally disabled, he gave an order to increase the ship’s electric propulsion motor (or “EPM”) to ahead two thirds. Following a traditional Leader-Follower model, his Officer of the Deck (or “OOD”) dutifully repeated the command to the ship’s helmsman. But the helmsman took no action and nothing happened. After several seconds, Captain Marquet asked the helmsman what was going on. He responded, “Captain, there is no ahead two thirds on [this particular] EPM!” Taking his OOD aside, he asked whether the OOD knew that. The OOD responded that he did, but that he honestly thought that perhaps Captain Marquet had “learned something secret at PCO school that they only tell the COs about.” From that point forward, Captain Marquet vowed “never to give an order, any order” – a remarkable decision given the Leader-Follower culture of the Navy. Instead, he would require the officers and enlisted sailors to state their intentions with “I intend to . . .” together with brief details to justify their intent. The goal was then for Captain Marquet simply to say, “Very well.”

Easy and quick? Not at all. But worth it? Captain Marquet certainly thinks so. As he puts it, moving Control to where information lives (assuming adequate Competence and Clarity in support) results in “great improvements in effectiveness and morale.” But perhaps most importantly, it “makes the organization stronger,” and the “improvements are enduring.” And it “spawn[s] additional leaders throughout the organization naturally. It can’t be stopped.”